How the Legal Victory on Affirmative Action Undermines the Progressive Coalition

The University of Texas’ policies make it harder to build an enduring cross-racial class-based coalition in American politics.

At the end of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a surprising boost to racial affirmative action programs in college admissions. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has long been critical of racial preferences, mysteriously switched sides in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas and provided decisive support for UT Austin’s use of race in college admissions in the High Court’s 4-3 decision.

The ruling was hailed as a big legal victory for liberals on the Supreme Court. Ironically, however, the decision to perpetuate racial preferences for an unknown number of years could end up undermining the long-term aspiration of progressive politicians – including President Obama – to build an enduring cross-racial class-based coalition in American politics.

As the president noted in a remarkable interview on National Public Radio this week, conservative efforts to divide working-class whites and working-class blacks is “one of the oldest stories in American politics.”  Obama noted, “A lot of politics in the South were specifically designed to make sure that [the black] sharecropper and the white farmer didn’t get together to question how the economy was structured and how they could both benefit.”

Even today, Obama continued, despite the reality of racial bias, “what a black working-class person has in common with a white working-class person is significant.”  Yet “what prevents them from voting along the same lines or working together on the same projects have to do with a whole range of cultural and identity issues, which they obviously feel are important and valid.  But what I’ve tried to do throughout my presidency is to try to get people to recognize themselves in each other.”

On the vast majority of issues — from health care to the minimum wage to regulation of Wall Street — President Obama has emphasized shared interests that advance this goal of reminding working-class whites and blacks what interests they share.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling in support of racial preferences – which President Obama urged the Court to make – is a glaring exception to that rule. Indeed, if Donald Trump were to create a plan to divide white working-class voters from black and Latino working-class voters – and fuel his brand of white identity politics — it is hard to think of a better one than creating a system that allows the state to make critical decisions about a person’s future based on their skin color.

While affirmative action does not show up as a leading issue in any public opinion polling, the policies have potent symbolic value that does not go unnoticed among white working class voters. A 2012 poll of working-class whites by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 60% of working-class whites (compared with 39% of college educated white) believed discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Given the persistent discrimination faced by people of color in a variety of settings, there is no way to make sense of this finding unless white voters view affirmative action as a form of discrimination against them.

The University of Texas case happened to involve a particularly galling fact pattern for working class whites because Texas had devised an ingenious way of producing racial and ethnic diversity in college – something that’s clearly good for society – without resorting to racial preferences.

From 1997-2004, blocked by a lower court decision from using race, UT relied on a system of admissions that provided a leg up to socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races and which also admitted students in the top 10% of every high school. Because of racial and economic segregation at the high school level, the system produced a significant degree or racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. In 1996, using race in admissions, the freshman class at UT was 4.1% African American and 14.5% Hispanic. By 2004, using socioeconomic status and the 10% plan – but not race – the class was 4.5% African American and 16.9% Hispanic.

While some said it was unseemly to rely on high school racial segregation to produce diversity in college, supporters of the plan such as Georgetown University’s Sheryll Cashin noted that from a moral perspective this was fitting. The plan didn’t benefit advantaged minority students – think the Texas equivalents of Sasha and Malia Obama – but rather the actual minority victims of segregated high schooling.   Critics worried that minority students who attended segregated schools might flunk out of UT for lack of adequate preparation but in fact, research from Princeton’s Marta Tienda has found they performed quite well.

As a political matter, the 10% plan didn’t divide working class whites and blacks, as racial preferences do. It united them. Upper middle class whites didn’t like the system because they saw reduced access to UT Austin, but working class-whites and working-class students of color saw new opportunities for inclusion. When university lobbyists sought to work with legislators from well-off districts to severely limit the 10% plan, an unusual coalition of rural white and urban black and Latino legislators supported the program against assault. It was the type of political coalition that liberals have dreamed of ever since Bobby Kennedy united working class white and minority voters his 1968 presidential campaign.

But after a 2003 Supreme Court decision gave universities the green light to use race in admission, UT layered racial preferences back into its admissions scheme. UT devised a new system of admissions in which 75% of students were admitted through the top 10% plan, and the other 25% were admitted under a system of holistic admissions that consider a variety of factors, including race. Abigail Fisher, a white student, sued, alleging reverse discrimination.

If UT’s Top 10% plan united working class whites and blacks, the new system divided them once more. Because percentage plan did produce substantial racial diversity, Texas defended the use of race in part by suggesting that the 10% plan failed to admit enough well-off minority students — “the African American or Hispanic child of successful professionals in Dallas” as it noted in a legal brief.

In his dissent in Fisher, Justice Samuel Alito noted with incredulity UT’s argument that the 10% plan admitted “the wrong kind of African-American and Hispanic students, namely, students from poor families who attend schools in which the student body is predominantly African-American or Hispanic.” Alito wrote that Texas’s contention that “a program that tends to admit poor and disadvantaged minority students is inadequate because it does not work to the advantage of those who are more fortunate” is “affirmative action gone wild.”

So, instead of pushing universities to find creative ways of getting racial diversity by addressing our nation’s growing class inequalities, the Supreme Court gave encouragement to continue a system that admits wealthy students of all colors. At the nation’s most selective colleges, students from the richest quarter of the population outnumber those from the poorest quarter by 24:1. Identity politics, in which minority voters ally with Democrats, and white voters ally with Republicans, is once again encouraged. And what President Obama rightly identified as “one of the oldest stories in American politics” lives on another day.

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, and is working on a book on economic segregation in housing and education.